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Couey housemates aren't in clear yet

A lawyer appears on The O'Reilly Factor to say time has run out on prosecutors, but Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway says not exactly.

By ABBIE VANSICKLE
Published June 29, 2005


INVERNESS - In the weeks since prosecutors decided not to file criminal charges against John Couey's housemates, the nuances of Florida criminal law have become the stuff of television debate.

The latest twist is how much time prosecutors have to charge the housemates with obstructing a law enforcement officer - or with any other crime - before the law bars them from doing so.

The answer is a bit complicated.

Prosecutors cannot charge the housemates with lying to law enforcement officers to protect Couey. The legal clock has run out on that possibility, said Chief Assistant State Attorney Ric Ridgway.

But that does not prevent prosecutors from charging the housemates with any other crime in connection with the slaying of 9-year-old Jessica Lunsford.

Couey, 46, is the convicted sex offender accused of kidnapping, sexually assaulting and killing Jessica in late February. Couey has pleaded not guilty and is being held at the Citrus County jail awaiting trial.

At the time of Jessica's disappearance, Couey shared a mobile home in Homosassa with four other adults and two children. Three of Couey's housemates - his half sister, Dorothy Marie Dixon, 47; her daughter, Madie Catherine Secord, 27; Matthew Oley Dittrich, 31 - were arrested shortly after his March 17 arrest.

Sheriff's investigators accused them of obstructing a law enforcement officer without violence, but prosecutors decided not to file charges against the trio.

Questions about the issue resurfaced when local lawyer Bill Grant appeared Monday night on a Fox News Channel's program, The O'Reilly Factor.

"We're going to be forever barred from charging them with a misdemeanor," Grant said, according to a program transcript. "And on September 10th of this year, we will be forever barred from charging them with - or going to trial on a felony."

That's not accurate, Ridgway told the Times on Tuesday.

Under state law, prosecutors have 90 days to file misdemeanor charges against someone once an arrest has been made, he said. The time limit is 175 days for a felony.

The housemates were accused of a misdemeanor crime, so the clock ran out June 16 or 17 for that charge. The dates are slightly different because they were all arrested at different times overnight between March 18 and 19.

However, prosecutors didn't intend to file charges against the housemates on those accusations, Ridgway said.

"We're not ever going to arrest them for resisting without violence for failing to disclose (John Couey)," he said.

But that decision has no bearing on whether the housemates will ever be charged in connection with the case, he said. The housemates still could be charged with felony crimes, such as accessories to a crime, or related misdemeanors, he said.

The State Attorney's Office has made no deal with the housemates. But in a letter to the Times, State Attorney Brad King explained the housemates could be important in Couey's trial.

"During the prosecution of Couey there will be two occasions when we may have to rely upon Dixon, Dittrich or Secord to provide us with critical testimony," he wrote. "Their cooperation, and testimony, may prove necessary to convict Couey. They have promised cooperation and have given it to us so far."

Grant did not return messages for comment Tuesday afternoon.

Ridgway said Grant worked as an assistant state attorney in King's office from 2003 to 2004. During his time at the office, Grant worked as a misdemeanor prosecutor, Ridgway said.

Grant resigned from the office after an incident at the Inverness Huddle House restaurant, according to letters between Brad King and a witness.

Witnesses said Grant quarreled with a waiter about a bill.

"Mr. Grant's behavior is an embarrassment to me, and the other employees of my office," King wrote in a letter to a woman who witnessed the argument.

Ridgway said he doesn't put much faith in the legal analysis of many of O'Reilly's guests.

"If you're interested in learning criminal procedure . . . you'd be better off watching episodes of Law and Order than the experts that Bill O'Reilly brings on," he said.

Abbie VanSickle can be reached at 860-7312 or vansickle@sptimes.com

[Last modified June 29, 2005, 01:18:19]


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